Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on May 28, 1958
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Lee Patrick, Konstantin Shayne, and Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Man Walking Past Elster’s Office’
I’d heard recently that Sight & Sound magazine had declared a new ‘greatest film of all time’, with Citizen Kane—the number one film on this survey since 1962—being supplanted by Vertigo, Hitchcock’s psychological take on obsession, possession, and reasons to stay away from bell towers. The results of this poll bothered me, because in my opinion, Vertigo is most certainly not the greatest film of all time, nor is it the greatest Hitchcock film of all time, either.
And after reading more on this particular subject, and finding not only that Sight & Sound considered its poll to be ‘the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats’, but that the magazine ranked Jaws at #323, I concluded that this stuffy British film periodical and its off-kilter survey were for the birds (which, by the way, is also a much better Hitchcock film than Vertigo, and is ranked #283).
However, I thought I needed to be fair about this whole matter, so I recently sat down to watch Vertigo again. Interestingly, when I first saw this movie during its theatrical re-release back in 1983, I thought it was quite absurd, and for the most part, an absolute bore. At the time, my interest in Hitchcock films was just beginning, as was a love of older films in general, and because of this I gave Vertigo a second try a few years after its home video release, and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as bad as I’d originally thought.
Was it better than Notorious, Rear Window, and North by Northwest? For me, it wasn’t even close, and still isn’t. But I’d found more to appreciate during that follow-up viewing, and what I realized that time around was how much I enjoyed the first half of the film and not the second; I loved the aspect of James Stewart’s retired police detective doing research work for a friend by tailing his wayward wife, but the second half, where Stewart falls in love with Kim Novak’s character and the story becomes a twisted romance melodrama, was an unexpected disappointment.
What troubled me more than anything about this second half was how a lot of what the friend was trying to pull was based on an incredible amount of presumption and assumption: what if Stewart doesn’t fall in love with Novak, or what if his fear of heights keeps him from climbing the bell tower stairs at all, or what if—at that necessary split-second—he’s actually not looking out the window and doesn’t see what he’s supposed to see to keep this slim thread of circumstance alive?
Plus, if you really think about it, the crux of the whole story is based on an extremely convoluted method of getting rid of one’s wife, which as far as common sense goes makes you wonder: why not just poison the woman and dump her bothersome carcass into the ocean? Instead, once Stewart gets the hots for Novak at the midpoint, we were subjected not only to Stewart’s uncomfortable and unbelievable advances towards a woman half his age and twice his looks, but also a laughably damning courtroom scene, Stewart’s stay in a psychiatric hospital, his transformation from a decent guy to a total jerk, and an ending that was flat-out unrealistic and just a little bit silly.
On the positive side, what really caught my eye this time was how much the film was a showcase for Hitchcock’s skills as a director, from his outstanding work behind the camera, to his buildup of mystery and suspense, and to an unexpected twist in the proceedings that our hero knew nothing about, but was one that Hitchcock let the audience in on, and which changed the film’s trajectory in a matter of seconds. Bernard Herrmann’s music score was quite exceptional as well, as was the location photography in and around scenic San Francisco.
As for the rest…sorry, I’m just not buying it, nor am I buying its status as one of the director’s greats. Believe me, I’m a full-on fan of Hitchcock, but for the life of me I don’t understand why so many people are so enamored by this particular effort. If you’re giving Hitchcock a try for the first time, I’d say start with one of his other classics first; otherwise, you may never give the guy a second look. (5/10)